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Saturday, May 29, 2010

World Cup Memories: Serbia

Serbia is a difficult subject to tackle. Its geopolitical history complicates its football history...even in my own memories. Should I treat them as the former Yugoslavia and group all the great things that former soccer nation accomplished? For the time being, and in this blog, I will simply point to past achievements.

The Yugoslavia national football team represented the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1920–1941) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Despite the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, remnants of its history offer a rich background full of impressive achievements. These include 8 World Cup appearances and two fourth place finishes in 1930 and 1962.

Yugoslavia split, of course, in the early 1990s. From it came Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Serbia & Montenegro. The latter were included took part in qualifying for the last World Cup, prior to Montenegro's independence. Through the 1998 tournament and Euro 2000, the name of Yugoslavia stuck with the team. And this is where we begin the memories.

France '98 was the year Yugoslavia was considered a dark horse contender for the title. Names such as Mihajlovic, Jugovic and Komlejenovic still ring in Euro club lore. The Yugoslavs played against Germany, Iran and the US in their group. They defeated the lower-seeded USA and Iran teams by 1-0 and tied the German's in a heartbreaker, where the Germans erased the 0-2 score thanks to a Mihajlovic own goal and a Bierhoff score 10 minutes from the 90 minute mark. What followed was a game against the Dutch, having lost first place in the group phase to Germany. Holland posed a much more dangerous opponent and although the match was 1-1 and headed for extra time, another late-game score, this time by Edgar Davids, was enough to finish their stay in the tournament.

Yugoslavia (still using this name) would miss out on 2002 due to the political turmoil and its spillover onto football. As Serbia & Montenegro, the Serbs finally returned to action in a World Cup in 2006. They had qualified with an unbeaten record and ahead of always-favorite Spain. Their group was that tournament's "group of death" with Argentina, Netherlands, Cote d'Ivoire. An injury to their major star, Petkovic, and the ensuing controversy surrounding his replacement (the coach's son, Dusan, who later withdrew due to pressure from the public/media) meant a mentally-weakened squad. They lost their first game against Holland, were destroyed by Argentina (6-0) , and subsequently failed to defeat Didier Drogba's Ivorian side.

What's next for Serbia? Germany, Australia and Ghana. Worthy foes in another "group of death." I can see them finishing in second place but competition for this spot will depend on their score against Germany and wins against the other two teams. Look out for stars like Stojkovic (Wigan), Vidic (Manchester United), Subotic (Borussia Dortmund), Stankovic (Inter), Ivanovic (Chelsea), Lazovic (Zenit St. Petersburg) and Zigic (Birmingham).

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